Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth, that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

It Takes X to Y

You must remember the popular saying, I think it was Hillary Clinton who was traveling about touting it some years back- It takes a village to raise a child-? That came to mind last Monday when I went to a wedding party in the village of Nong Ya Sai. I went as a last minute cultural expedition, courtesy of Mr. Jong, the school caretaker, because they know I am interested in becoming more involved in the village. This was not the wedding proper- rather more akin to the "rehearsal dinner" in the States, only everyone, as far as I could see, was invited. Crossing the main road into the village provided a terrific window into the lives of my students and their families off the res, where life is less formalized and structured. Treating me like an honored visiting guest, they immediately sat me down and piled a number of plates of food.
That dish in the immediate left foreground is raw beef, which naturally caused me a moment's hesitation, and of which I subsequently gobbled up almost a bowl and a half. They also gave me steak- pointing out its special nature through gestures and repeated inquiries as to whether I liked it ( I hadn't had it prior and in restaurants it is for falangs and very expensive).  You can see my old buddy Chang there in front of the village elder in the black. As far as I can tell the man in the elegant grey shirt is either an uncle to the  bride or her grandfather. The way they jumped to my needs and included me demonstrates something special about life in a village, something which I can't imagine anywhere else. Here is the young bride to be, a slip of a thing, 18, with her mother.
 I am sorry I only have this one photo and her eyes are closed. She is on the cusp of an important life transition, and all this hubbub was for her. It was a whole village event- a village who had a stake in this girl's happiness. All about me people were coming and going, pitching in, eating or not eating. A few of the older women go to dancing to the (of course) loud Thai music and tried to lure me in with them. I was busy eating.  Here is the kitchen behind my delicious food:
Yes it is gender segregated, that much is obvious, but I doubt had I wanted to jump in and cook they would mind.
In fact, the woman waving on the left this next photo was very hopeful I would!
What is also very apparent is the easy joy emanating from the gathering. While the adults were going about their various conversations and business, the children were running too and fro, doing their own thing, coming by to say hello to me and just playing in a very loose manner, the way kids do everywhere. Yet something about the particular way they are playing in the dust, in the shadows of their simple homes, and the way the adults are generally ignoring them, says more about the way a village raises a child than anything else. What Hillary, or Madison Avenue, or whoever came up with the folksy wisdom It takes a village... wanted those of us in our western, isolated suburban homes to imagine was a very hands-on scenario. Nurturing adults of all stripes keeping a constant watchful eye, ready to intervene at the slightest infraction of fairness or dnager: No, Bobwinga! That is not the moral way to proceed! Here is what to do! I greatly admire Hillary Clinton. She is tough and smart and brave and hard working as hell, and she is not a quitter. I am not saying I would vote for her- in fact I am probably against as many of her policies as for- but it is clear she has those attributes I mentioned. In fact she is very like some of the most admirable Thai women who are carrying their families single-handedly ( I should mention here that Thai women are notably loose with the idea of what is true and what is a lie!). But I think that Hillary in her village painting leaves the far more important aspect of village life out- that of freedom and accountability; that a village child is left to their own wiles much of the time, unsupervised, responsible for the nature and consequences of their decisions and actions. Yes, the ancient broom maker comes to share his knowledge with the children at school, and any grandma can tell any kid to get a chair or a glass of water for a stranger, but no, no one is going to sue me if one of the kids chops off a finger with the knife I give her to strip tamarind husks, no one is micro-managing the behavior which includes doling out justice or injustice and choosing teams fairly or unfairly, or doing anything potentially dangerous such as climbing on stacks of chairs that could tip over- i.e. discovering the world through trial and error, and pain and pleasure through experimentation.

Which all left me thinking what an empty statement the village one is as is so much in our media soaked, politically tired nation; how hard it is to say anything at all that is both meaningful and true. In the first world we have left the village behind, both its poverty and its loveliness. We're not going back there. In many ways I think these kids are most akin to the redneck families I know in places like Maine and Wyoming- places where they "cling to their guns and bibles". Here is a cute kid, yes? It takes a village to raise a child....
And here he is coming out the other side. Ummmmm....

Rednecks have some of that treasured freedom and looseness to their lives, and some of the connection to nature lost by the suburban and city kids, but they have no village. Because that is the other part of this scene which struck my so strongly- the sense of sharing- space, life, and "stuff". Maybe it is simply spending a life in a rattan house like this:
where not a whole lot you do is going to be private. The question, Are these villagers happy? seems exceptionally silly. As does the idea that we, given our technological, cultural and political status, are going to be swayed in our popular habits and direction by a pleasant quote (or even a deep concept such as global climate change), delivered by a career politician. Is it that our self-awareness runs too deep? Is this the natural cost of our multiculturalism? Or that we are simply seeing the end game of individualism coupled with capitalism? It seems we don't love anything the way the Thais do their king or their traditions. If Obama with his once in a generation eloquence and his biracial and worldly family cannot sway us to unity and self sacrifice, what possibly can? I read that a large solar power company has given up and moved operations to China- who is of course subsidizing the bejeezuz out of it. I see the latest murders in Arizona have only made the usual suspects vomit their predetermined responses. I guess that sounds a bit defeatist coming from a person who is trying to convey to you his experience through words and pictures. I do believe in words and language, their power to effect important shifts in a given life. Thanks to my education and the ironic nature of my culture, I am also all too aware of their artificiality and limitations. It is complex and what we yearn for in that folksy saying is ultimately something less so.
I remember once when I was traveling with my brother Chris through the southwest, many years back. We had been looking at all kinds of wonderful important historical art and enjoying it immensely. Still it was the picture drawn by a very young child, the typical mistakes in perspective and relative size and shape, yet done with a genuinely confident, pure hand, that made the biggest impression on Chris, then a young New York artist slaving at  a variety of odd jobs, living on nothing in cramped quarters, squeezing in his painting time in the middle of the night - That is what I am trying to find. That place of pure creativity in response to the world. With all that I know of art, and technique, and the world's history and the darkness of man's heart- that is what I am again trying to make.  I don't know if he still feels that way. It was a long time ago. Sitting at that table, unable to say more than a word or two of thanks to my hosts and the bride to be, I was afloat in a rare quotation free ether. For those two hours I had found my way back to something lost, something missing.


  1. Good for you! I think Thailand is starting to sink in.

    As for those large social gatherings. I hope you understand Tamboon. Just in case, since it wasn't mentioned. It mostly boils down to some money in an envelope. How much is in large part a reflection of your social statis, which can be easily determined by how you are treated.

    When to offer tamboon? When there's a crew in the kitchen area and more than one can eat in front of them.

    How much to put in the envelope? layoh tay koon - up to you 200B is often a good midline.

    Check with your Thai advisers.

  2. Yes,I still think that way. Thanks for the memory